Friday, May 18, 2012

Tahiti Part 3 - Moorea

Tuesday morning Misa was still getting over her cold so Katka and I let her sleep in while we took a tour of the north end of the island.  We visited two high lookouts, two bays, a juice factory and pineapple distillery, a pineapple plantation, an ancient temple, and numerous other sights.  It is hard to describe how beautiful it is here, you will just have to see the pictures, but even those do not do it justice. After the tour we walked into town for our first meal outside of the hotel, and returned for homeschool the rest of the afternoon.  In the evening Katka wasn't hungry so Misa and I went to dinner by ourselves and then to feed the fish.  It was the most amazing night on the water.  There was a lot of action, and we saw lots of jellyfish, a seahorse, and numerous different little worm-sized creatures swimming around.  The most interesting thing was watching the big fish hunt the little fish.  It seems like the lights in the water attract plankton, so there is always a huge school of small fish, around 6 inches, hanging around the lights.  The big fish, 1.5-2 feet long, swim below them, waiting for one to wander off a little bit by itself.  When it does they chase it, and if they catch it they eat it whole.  One time we saw a little fish try to escape by jumping out of the water, but the big fish jumped after it and caught it in mid-air.  The little fish often did escape by jumping, sometimes at least 3 feet above the water.  We were so amazed and having such a great time that we were there for two hours before we even thought about what time it was.  It was by far the best night of the trip to Tahiti so far. Wednesday we rented a car and drove around the island.  We rented an iPod touch with a GPS guide of the island that alerted you whenever you were near something to see or a place to stop for a photo.  Then you could play a short entry about the sight and see a picture so you knew what to look for.  It took about three hours to go around the island, half the time driving and half seeing sights.  We stopped at a few of the places we had seen the day before so Misa could see them too.  When we got back I dropped Katka and Misa in town for lunch and went to fill up the car so we could return it full of gas.  On the way back to the hotel I stopped for a cheeseburger at a roadside stand.  We all met back in our room fed and happy.  We went for an afternoon swim in the pool.  While we were at the pool two guys that were spear-fishing caught a large octopus.  Its head was about the size of a softball, and its arms over a foot long.  From the tip of one arm to the tip of the opposite arm it was about three feet.  I am not sure it was legal, but they looked like they live here, and they just bagged it up and took off.  After swimming Misa did some homeschool, we ordered room service for supper, and then we went to a traditional Tahitian village for a music and dance show.  It was pretty impressive, particularly the guys that did the fire portion of the show, twirling large batons around them with fire on both ends.  They could twirl them so fast that it just made a circle of fire and you couldn't see the ends of the baton. Thursday was my birthday, so I got to choose what we did.  I chose sea kayaking and snorkeling.  It was beautiful.  We took a bunch of  videos, I hope they turn out nicely.  After lunch we went for a swim in the pool.  After our swim we went back to the room for showers.  While I showered Katka and Misa went into town to look at a dress Misa had her eye on.  When they got back they had a cake for my birthday.  It was a beautiful French cheesecake, all decorated fancy with a big 47 on top and a single candle.  I was really surprised; Misa didn't really have her eye on a dress, it was just a decoy to go to town for my cake.  After they sang Happy Birthday we had cake and coffee, a perfect birthday party. After supper we went back out to feed the fish.  Again, it was amazing - but this time because there was a five foot reef shark swimming around where we were snorkeling today.  We also saw lion fish, and some shiny silver fish like a silver dollar with a foot long greenish tentacle growing out of the top.  It looks exactly like a piece of seaweed, which is probably great camouflage.  On the way back to the room there was a huge crab walking on the sidewalk.  When we went to get a picture it froze and let us walk up close.  We easily could have grabbed it, but you have to feed the crabs here coconut for a week or two before you can eat them, so we let it go.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tahiti Part 2 - Moorea

I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of strong wind and rain, with the sun beating in my eyes.  I know, it didn't make sense to me either, so I looked outside. The sun and wind were real, but the "rain" was the wind blowing through the thatched roof.  The frayed edge of the roof was blowing against the window, sounding exactly like rain. Because of the wind the ocean wasn't pleasant for swimming but the pool was fine, so we spent the day there and in our bungalow.  Saturday night they had a special buffet dinner and Tahitian dancing show.  We also rented a movie, so it was a late night.  We didn't get to bed until midnight. Sunday morning we had to move from our overwater bungalow to a regular room.  Misa developed a bad cold so she spent the day in the room texting her friends, working on homeschool, and watching a movie.  Katka and I had a day together by the pool, then we walked into town for ice cream, and then dinner at the hotel restaurant. I guess for Mother's Day Misa gave Katka a day alone with me.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tahiti Part 1

Thursday, May 10th we got up at 3am for a 6:30 flight to Auckland. We were in Auckland for 2.5 hours before we left for Papeete,the capital of Tahiti. We arrived at 9pm May 9th. We stayed two nights in Tahiti on the west coast near Papeete.  The first night we checked in and went straight for dinner at the restaurant in the hotel.  It was already 11pm but we were not too tired because it was only 7pm Sydney time.  We tried to explore the hotel a bit after dinner, but it was pitch black and hard to tell where the resort stopped and the ocean started. We slept in until almost 11am Thursday morning, much better than the 3am we woke up the first Thursday we had this week.  Katka and I explored the area around the resort bit, but we were sort of in the middle of nowhere.  We felt lucky to find a little food stand for lunch and a convenience store to buy snacks for the room.  Then we saw a couple of people walking with a bag from McDonald's, and I knew where my supper was coming from if I could find it.  Misa was still in bed when we got back at 1pm.  So Katka went to the pool while I checked my email and Misa ate the breakfast we brought from the convenience store. After Misa ate and got ready we joined Katka at the pool, it was pretty impressive.  They advertise it as the largest infinity pool in Papeete, and I suppose it could be.  It was at the pool that I started to look around and realize how beautiful Tahiti is.  The water is crystal clear, and various shades of blue depending on the depth and what is under, coral, rocks, or sand.  Tahiti is in French Polynesia, a huge group of volcanic islands.  The volcanos loom over everything, steep and covered with green trees, shrubs, and grass.  The sun set right over the island Moorea, lighting up from behind as if it was on fire. We stayed at the pool the rest of the day.  For supper Misa ordered room service, Katka had some tuna and crackers that she bought at the convenience store, and I headed for McDonald's.  But on the way I noticed a bunch of new restaurants had sprung up near our hotel.  Trailers with kitchens in them had been set up in the parking lots along the street, and tables and chairs set up around each trailer.  I wandered into one large parking lot and found a pizza and crepe restaurant.  I got a wonderful pepperoni and mushroom pizza to go and took it back to our room.  Somehow I resisted the Nutella and banana crepe.  We ate dinner on our balcony, soaking in the ocean breeze.  I can honestly say May 10 was bad and good, one day of each. Friday we took a ferry to Moorea, an island about 10 miles from Tahiti.  We weren't sure where to go, and there weren't really any signs pointing us to the boarding gate, so we actually didn't go on the ferry with our luggage, but a second ferry they had running at the same time for the overload.  We got to Moorea about 15 minutes after our bags, but they were there waiting for us when we got off, much to our relief. Our hotel for the week is the Moorea Pearl.  The first two nights we are staying in an overwater bungalow.  Our bungalow sits on four pillars about 3 feet above the ocean.  We have a little private pier with a ladder for swimming, and a window in our floor for watching the fish.  Misa and I swam about 150 feet around the bungalows toward the beach, but ran into coral about 100 feet off-shore and had to swim back to our bungalow.  I wasn't too excited about the 300 foot swim in open ocean, but I survived and feel happy for Misa that we tried. We spent the rest of the day in the pool, then supper at our hotel where we stole some bread to feed the fish under our bungalow.  Misa figured out how to throw the bread so it landed under the window in our floor, creating a feeding frenzy we can watch, since all of the TV is in French.  When we turn on the light for our back porch it also turns on a light under our bungalow so we can see the fish.  There were probably around 50 small fish (6 inches) and 20 large fish (1-2 feet) under our bungalow all night. Now we are getting ready for bed, Misa is reading while Katka and I write our emails and updates.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Goodbye Sydney

Our last day in Sydney we walked across the Harbour Bridge to The Rocks.  It is about a mile across.  When we did the Bridge Climb we received tickets to go up in one of the four pylons, which has a small museum about the building of the bridge, and an observation deck for views of the harbor and bays.  After going up in the pylon we continued to The Rocks for lunch at the Australian Hotel.  After lunch we walked back across the bridge to Kirribilli and started packing.  Because of the souvenirs and some clothing we bought while we were here all of our suitcases are stuffed extra full.  I guess we won't know until morning if they'll actually close or not. For supper Katka and I went out to eat in Kirribilli for the first time.  Despite all of the nice places to eat in the area, we always went somewhere else to eat out.  But because we were sort of in a hurry tonight we stayed close by and had a really nice meal.  I think Mother Nature put on a little extra show for us today, because it was beautiful, nice and warm - high 70s, and not a cloud in the sky. And when we got back from supper there was an extra special sunset. Looking back it has been an amazing three months, but we are all ready to move on.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sydney Opera House

Monday they had a going away lunch for Katka, Misa, and me at school.  I was nice to see how many people I had met and for Katka and Misa to get a feeling for the great folks at UTS.  The lunches we had at UTS every week after seminars were the highlights of the week for me.  I loved the discussion, jokes, and advice.  Australians are great conversationalists and love to make a joke, usually at someone else's expense.  They tease the Kiwis and Tazzies the most, although Queenslanders and folks from the Outback and West get their fair share.  But it is all in good fun.

Monday night we had tickets at the Sydney Opera House to see Onegin.  It is a beautiful Russian ballet about a man that doesn't realize what he has until it is too late and he ends up with nothing.  It was exceptional, easily as good, or better than, the ballets we have seen in California or Prague at the National Theater.  The cast was quite large, probably 30 dancers at least, and the sets were great.  There were two intermissions, which caught us by surprise.  Unfortunately that made the ballet run an extra 20 minutes so we missed our ferry home by 5 minutes.  We decided to get some food and wait for the next ferry, but after 30 minutes we discovered that because it was so late at night the ferries were on a 60 minute schedule instead of a 30 minute schedule.  No problem though, we can just take the train from Circular Quay to Wynyard and transfer there to Milson’s Point.  Except when we got to Wynyard there was no train to Milson’s Point; due to track work they were using busses instead.  So we followed the signs and exited the station into a dark alley, no busses in sight.  But when we looked through the station to the other side we did see busses.  We figured that someone just turned around the sign, and the arrows were pointing the wrong way.  So as crossed through the station to the other side I turned the sign around.  Except that was not the correct side, the busses really were on the dark alley side, we just didn’t go far enough.  Unfortunately because I turned the sign around a whole group of other people joined us going the wrong way.  We quickly went back to the other side, indiscreetly turning the sign back around as we went through the station.  Of course all of the running around meant that as we got to the bus it was just leaving.  We waved at the driver and knocked on the door, but he just shrugged his shoulders and drove away.  It was now 45 minutes after the ballet was over and we were done running around.  We hopped in a cab and were at our door 5 minutes later and $15 poorer, which is what we should have done in the first place.  Although it was frustrating, we didn’t let it ruin our special night at the Sydney Opera House.

I was excited for Tuesday at work, not because it was my last day, but because my friend Vern was coming for the week.  Vern is the one that told me about UTS six months ago, and the reason we were able to spend the semester here.  I met Vern about 12 years ago and a conference in Oklahoma, and he has been a good friend and colleague ever since.  We have written several papers together, and he asked me to join him on some projects that turned into the papers that got me tenure.  Vern also knows Katka, Katunka, and Misa because he traveled with us in Norway, and was in Prague once when we were all there for a conference.  So on Tuesday we went to lunch and spent a good part of the day together catching up.  I haven’t been going to many conferences the past few years so we haven’t been able to see each other a great deal, but it was just like old times seeing him again.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Harbour Bridge Climb

Saturday morning we headed to "The Rocks" for the Harbour Bridge Climb. Misa and I had been there once before, but didn't end up doing the climb because it was hot and we didn't want to spoil it just because we had the wrong clothes on.

On Sunday I couldn't find the ferry schedule so we took the train to Wynyard station and walked from there.  We got to the Bridge Climb at 11:00 and they had openings for an 11:25 climb.  There were only 7 people in our group, Katka, Misa, me, a mom and son from Tasmania, and a young couple from Ireland. The normal group size is 14, so we felt lucky to be in a smaller group.

The safety and security they have is almost crazy.  First they do a breathalyzer to make sure you haven't had too much to drink, and you have to sign paperwork stating that you are physically fit, not pregnant, haven't had a recent surgery, aren't on any medications, etc. Then you leave all of your belongings in a locker. Other than your clothing, the only thing you're allowed to take on the climb is your glasses or sunglasses, and they give you a strap to hook those on so they don't fall off when you are on the bridge. Then you put on a special grey and blue Bridge Climb jumpsuit, which is a full bodysuit, like the orange jumpsuits convicts wear, just in better colors. Then you go through a metal detector to make sure you didn't "forget" to put everything in your locker. You then get a safety harness and a training session. During the entire bridge climb you are tethered to a steel cable, which keeps you from falling or jumping. The practice session involves climbing up and down two ladders while tethered so you can get the feel for it, and they can make sure you understand about waiting until the person ahead of you is off the ladder before you get on and start climbing or descending.

After the training you go get the rest of your equipment, a fleece jacket in a bag attached to your harness, a walkie-talkie with headphones attached to your harness, a handkerchief with a wrist strap, and optional items such as a hat and gloves, which attach to your jumpsuit.  There is nothing on you that can fall off or blow away, which is important because you are climbing the bridge above cars, trains, pedestrians, and cyclists. After training we headed outside for the climb. The climb follows one of the top arches up to the half-way point, where you cross to the other side and walk back to the starting point. Along the way your guide tells you about the construction of the bridge and interesting bridge facts and stories, and stops periodically to take pictures, available for purchase at the end of the climb. When we got to the very top we took a group photo, and then we sort of spread out, the Tasmanians in front, then our family, and the Irish couple bringing up the rear.  We all stood there admiring the view when there was some commotion behind us. I started to turn around when I heard Katka say, "look, he is proposing!" I turned around and the Irish guy was down on one knee with an engagement ring asking his girlfriend to marry him. It was like something out of a movie.  She said yes and we all cheered.  It must have gotten really dusty because my eyes were watering, I even had to use the handkerchief.

Of course the mood for the rest of the climb was awesome, everyone was happy and chattering about the engagement. I told Misa it was fate, that we didn't make the climb the first time, and that I couldn't find the ferry schedule so we took the train instead, arriving exactly at 11:00, with the next available climb at 11:25 with the cute couple from Ireland.  The bridge climb is pretty spectacular, but now it is one of those special memories that we will have forever.

After the climb we went to a nice German restaurant with live music, the typical polka/waltz band.  Katka commented that she likes it because in Germany they have the same songs as in Czech. So we were enjoying the band with Katka singing along in Czech, when she said, "this is a Czech song." We told her that we know, she told us about the songs being the same, just different languages, when she said, "no, I mean they are singing in Czech." The band was Czech, as were about half of the other employees in the restaurant.

Katka and I went to one of the UTS professor's house for dinner. Bernhard and his wife Maria invited us, one other professor, and Bernhard's uncle and his wife. Misa was invited too but didn't feel up to it after the bridge climb, so she stayed home, which was fine because she had homeschool to do anyway.  The dinner was great, everyone was from Europe originally except for me, and we all had interesting backgrounds or stories.  Unfortunately we had so much fun we stayed until almost midnight, which meant we were all tired on Sunday.

Sunday morning I got up and went to Chatswood to buy some things we needed for our last week here.  When I was there I found a bookstore that had books on sale 75% off.  So when I got back to our apartment I grabbed Misa and we went to Chatswood for lunch, book shopping, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  When we got home Katka was ready to go out, so Katka and I went back to Chatswood for sushi, while Misa stayed home to work on school.  It wasn't the Sunday we had planned originally, but we were all too tired to do much else, and it was a nice relaxing day.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Update and Thoughts on Bali

This was a fairly typical week for us.  I went to work every day, and Misa came with me on Wednesday for homeschool and to watch her shows (Modern Family, The Middle, Shark Tank).  The other days she did homeschool in the morning and then went somewhere with Katka in the afternoon.  Except on Friday Misa stayed home while Katka went on a tour of "The Rocks," part of Sydney that is now a fashionable area with specialty shops, galleries, restaurants, and several museums, but in 1788 was the location of the first convict settlement in Sydney.  Thursday night I rented a movie at a self-serve place similar to Redbox in the US, except here it is green and charges $3.50, not $1.

Riding the train to work one day I started to think about our amazing trip to Bali, and recalled a couple of interesting things.  On the way to Nusa Dua we had a conversation with our driver about driving in Bali. It seems like chaos, and very dangerous. The streets and roads are very narrow, with no space for parking along the sides. But that doesn't stop people from parking, effectively blocking half of one side of the street. To get around the cars traveling in that direction have to go into the oncoming lane. The streets are also full of scooters (small motorcycles), most going slower than the cars.  As there are no speed limits in Bali the cars go as fast as possible, which is never very fast due to the traffic. To pass the scooters the cars have to go partially into the other lane and straight into oncoming traffic. The scooters also don't always use the proper lane, sometimes driving on the right side of the road, and sometimes the left. Of course, like many island nations, they drive on the left side in Indonesia. So as we are driving to Nusa Dua we are constantly swerving into oncoming traffic to go around parked cars, scooters, or trucks going too slow. Of course the cars going the other way were sometimes also passing or swerving, so for a few seconds we would be driving on the right side of the road and the car coming toward us driving on the left.  It was shocking that somehow we always seemed to get back into the correct lane just before colliding head-on.  And don't get me started on how close we came to all of the people, dogs, chickens, bicyclists, etc. that were traveling on the edge of the road.  Organized chaos is almost too nice of a way to describe it.

Our driver asked us if we ride scooters in America, and if we had ever ridden one. I told him no, that I had never been on a scooter, and they were not common in America. He asked if we would rent a scooter to ride around one day in Bali. I told him no, that it didn't seem safe. He said that it is safe, "once you get to know the situation." He went on to explain that traffic flows and follows patterns, and once you are familiar with it you are fine. A few minutes later we saw two tourists riding on scooters; our driver pointed them out and said, "see, they are enjoying themselves, they know the situation."

It was hard to get used to the money in Bali. The currency is the Rupiah, and exchanges at about 9,000 for $1. About every other day I withdrew money from the ATM, and the maximum it let me withdraw was 1,250,000 Rupiah. So every other day I was walking around a millionaire.  Tipping was especially difficult, because I never knew what was appropriate. When we got through customs and to the baggage claim there were three porters waiting, each with one suitcase. Although we didn't need help I didn't protest, not knowing the local customs. After we got through customs I gave them $5 ( total, not each) and told them we were fine on our own. Our guidebook suggested 20,000 was a good tip for a driver or guide for half a day, in other words, TWO DOLLARS. When we arrived at our hotel I tipped our driver and guide 50,000 Rupiah, about $5 each, and they were very happy. But then when the bellhop escorted us to our rooms and brought two of the suitcases I also gave him 50,000 Rupiah, which is about what I would give the bellhop in the states (which is hypothetical, because we never use the bellhop in the US). So the driver and guide each got $5 for about 2 hours of helping us out, and the bellhop $5 for 15 minutes. Once I left 20,000 Rupiah as a gratuity, because after you have been in Bali for a while you start to think of 20,000 as quite a bit of money, but when I realized I had left $2 I felt guilty.

After our 30 minute tour of the temple at Uluwatu our guide asked for a $10 tip. He was the first person to ask for a gratuity, and definitely the first person to be bold about the amount.  Even our guide wouldn't tell me how much to pay him after he spent the whole day driving me around, and when I tried to give him $40 he said it was too much and gave me back half.

The price of gas in Bali is about $2 per gallon; Indonesia has some oil reserves of their own and the government subsidizes some oil and gas. Gas is sold at regular filling stations, but also at roadside stands in liter and two liter glass bottles, often empty vodka bottles to other clear containers. At the filling station gas was 4,500 Rupiah for one liter, and at the roadside stands 5,000 Rupiah for one liter.

There are no words for our seasons in Balinese (winter, spring, summer, fall).  They have only two seasons, wet and dry, so those are the only words they need.